Internet

AOL's other network

America Online becomes the center of yet another controversy, this one involving alternative lines to the service.

Beleaguered America Online (AOL) has become the center of yet another controversy, this one surrounding a network of alternative telephone lines that the service has not publicized to its frustrated customers.

Today's New York Times reported that AOL has tried to save money by pointing customers toward AOLnet access lines rather than older ones provided by nationwide access provider Sprintnet, adding that those lines are less congested but require AOL to pay usage fees.

However, AOL spokeswoman Tricia Primrose said just the opposite is true. The lines operated by Sprint and other phone carriers offering AOL access are older and slower, she said, with data transmission speeds about half that of the AOL lines.

Primrose said AOL engineers who monitor the company's access lines routinely remove the various AOLnet and Sprintnet numbers from access lists as they become too busy to handle additional calls. The older Sprintnet numbers are better known to AOL's 8 million customers and tend to "busy out" more frequently than the new AOLnet lines, she said.

But Primose added that AOL has increased its $350 million commitment to building a bigger network and will add 10,000 modems through a new deal with Sprint that will be operational within weeks. The company will also lease an additional 50,000 supplemental modems, which will cost AOL more than $10 million.

Sprintnet was one of the standard routes into AOL's services before the Vienna, Virginia-based company began investing in its own AOLnet two years ago. AOL's propriety network now handles about 80 percent of customer traffic. But the company's phone lines have proved insufficient since December, when the company saw a dramatic rise in customers after launching a $19.95-a-month unlimited access service.

The situation has led a handful of customers to file civil lawsuits against the company. Attorneys general from 37 states recently settled with AOL after threatening to sue on grounds of deceptive business practices.

AOL continues to offer the Sprintnet lines to customers in areas where AOLnet has not been rolled out. The company must pay fees to Sprint and other third-party carriers for usage of such lines.

Meanwhile, at least one Internet service provider is benefiting from AOL's woes. Atlanta-based ISP MindSpring said today that it has seen a dramatic increase recently in new subscribers for its online service.

The Internet provider also allows subscribers to use MindSpring's proprietary Pipeline Plus software to use AOL. However, subscribers must also pay a $9.95 AOL monthly charge.